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Weapons and Kit

The Gatling Gun – The First Machine Gun?

All the specs on an historical weapon that changed the face of war.

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What if one soldier could be given the same amount of firepower as dozens, or even hundreds?

That was effectively the way in which early machine guns were looked at - as force multipliers and, paradoxically, as life savers.

At least, that is how the inventor of the Gatling gun saw his weapon. Of course it did not turn out like that. We know in hindsight that the Gatling gun was part of an evolution in warfare that would eventually result in many other kinds of machine guns, early versions of which would be responsible for so much of the carnage in World War 1. Even the fact that artillery killed most soldiers in that conflict is misleading: soldiers were hiding in trenches, where only artillery could reach them. But it was machine guns that forced them to hide in the ground in the the first place.

In short, machine guns completely altered warfare, and the Gatling gun was effectively the first step in this sea change. What follows is the story of this first effective rapid-fire gun - a look at its inventor, his invention, and how, despite being replaced by later machine guns, it is still with us today.

Who Invented The Gatling Gun?

The Gatling gun derived its name from its inventor, Richard John Gatling, who was borne in 1818 and died, fittingly enough, in the last year his famous weapon was issued within the US – 1903.

Since he was born on a remote farm in North Carolina, and not in some industrial centre, Richard Jordan Gatling might not seem like the sort of person who would have designed a battle-changing weapon. 

Yet counterintuitively, growing up in rural America did prepare him perfectly for designing his famous gun. That is because not only did he manage to receive the basic numeracy and literacy skills the industrial revolution demanded of people in a modernising world, he also got to tinker on the farm. This was a time and place where inventing simple contraptions and solutions to problems was commonplace, at least it seems to have been in the Gatling household.

Gatlings father, for instance, was a self-taught blacksmith and carpenter and had invented a cotton thinner and cotton seed planter. 

And his brother later experimented in early aviation, inventing a flying machine in 1873 that flew for 100 feet, before slamming into a tree.

Gatling himself ended up with over 50 patents over the course of his life, narrowly missing one for the screw propeller that moves modern motorboats through the water. 

It was the opening of the American Civil War in 1861 that convinced him to turn his industrious mind to the problem of creating a reliable rapid-fire weapon. Although it seems obvious to a modern audience on the far side of World Wars 1 and 2 that rapid-fire weaponry would increase lethality and fatality numbers in battle, Gatling had the opposite objective. 

In his day, the vast majority of military deaths were the result of the infection of wounds and disease. To his way of thinking, if he could increase firepower, he could reduce the need for and the number of soldiers, therefore reducing the number of people exposed to battlefield diseases or prone to getting their wounds infected.

Penicillin was to do that far more effectively, but that would not come along until World War 2. In the meantime, Gatling’s invention would help change the face of modern warfare.

Was The Gatling Gun The First Rapid Fire Weapon?

The short answer to this question is no. 

The first attempt came in 1861 in the form of the Union Repeating or Ager ‘Coffee Mill’ Gun, which derived its nickname from the hopper on top that fed bullets into the gun before firing. This resembled the top of a coffee grinder, as did the crank shaft used to fire it, in fact.

The Coffee Mill gun managed a theoretical rate of fire of 100 rounds per minute, which would have been impressive if firing it was not so dangerous for the firer and damaging for the gun. The first problem was that the gun apparently had a propensity to let flame from the fired cartridge escape the chamber and go up into the ammunition hopper, where it was liable to ignite other cartridges. The second problem was that all that metal and gunpower got awfully hot when fired so rapidly, so much so that the barrel lowed red, then white, and then began melting, essentially, with fused metal pouring off it.

This left the field open to Gatling and his attempt at the first effective rapid-fire gun. Smithurst says:

“The invention that put Gatling on the path to worldwide fame was US patent no. 36,836 of 4 November 1862, simply titled ‘Machine Gun’.”

US Government observers who saw his weapon in action were impressed, and various other models would follow, in 1865, 1869, 1871, 1874, 1883, 1890, 1895, 1900 and finally 1903.

Gatling_gun at Fort Laramie in Wyoming by Matthew Trump
A Gatling gun on display at Fort Laramie in Wyoming (image: Matthew Trump)

How Did The Gatling Gun Work?

The Gatling gun overcame the problem of its predecessor by having multiple barrels, only one of which would fire at a time. This reduced the problem of overheating considerably.

The 1862 version of the weapon was fed by a straight magazine that dropped the cartridges into it, and fired the bullets out of its top barrel, something that must have made aiming it easier than later models.

From 1865 onwards, the weapon changed considerably, and its altered mechanics would lay the foundation for future models. The new metallic cartridge that it fired left a shell casing that needed to be removed and ejected in a slightly different way. 

As Smithurst explains it:

“The chambers to hold the cartridge now became part of the barrel, so cartridges had to be pushed forward a distance corresponding to their length so that they entered the chamber in the barrel; after firing, the empty cartridge cases then had to be withdrawn from the chamber. Thus there was a significant increase in the distance the bolt had to travel … “

To give the bolt the room it needed, cams and a slanted groove were used to move the cartridge as it dropped from the magazine, then to rotate the barrel and chamber it was inserted into to the right (if seen from the rear.) The slanting groove and cams were also used to manipulate the position of the bolt, compressing the spring which, when released at a certain position, would launch the firing pin and fire the bullet.

A similar process would then essentially happen in reverse on the left side of the gun as the spent shell casing was ejected and the empty chamber/barrel rotated back up to the top of the gun to receive the next cartridge that dropped down from the magazine on top.

This newer model worked by loading several barrels up with cartridges at a time, but only firing one of them once it was rotated to about 5 o’clock (if seen from the rear, from which the barrels did move in the clockwise direction.) This was the optimum position for manipulating the bolt, as explained just above.

This whole process, meanwhile, was kept going by the firer continuously rotating the handle on one side, which turned a central shaft around which the barrels spun.

A test on this version of the gun showed it could fire at a rate of 20 rounds in eight seconds.

Where Was The Gatling Gun Used?

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the weapon was barely used, if at all, during the American Civil War, even though Union military observers had been impressed by and ordered the weapon.

It also did not see much action on the American frontier, although it did see some.

Countries outside the US seemed to make greater use of it at first. It seems to have had limited use during the Franco-Prussian War, for instance, and the British made extensive use of it. They adopted it in 1870 and with them it saw action in the Second Anglo-Afghan War and in different parts of Africa, like the Sudan and in the south, where they used it in the Anglo-Zulu War.

They apparently did not make much use of it in action during the Third-Anglo Ashanti War, though a mere demonstration of its capabilities is said to have caused an Ashanti dignitary to commit suicide, such was his belief in the futility of resistance against such a weapon.

And at least one Zulu warrior later remarked on the use of the Gatling gun during the Anglo-Zulu War, and how the British merely had to turn a handle on this machine to make vast numbers of him and his comrades fall in battle. In both cases, the (one might say unfair) technological advantages held by the British would seem to say as much about the incredible bravery of the people facing them as it does about the way the Gatling gun was rapidly changing warfare.

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A Gatling gun being used by the British in the Anglo-Zulu War (image from ‘The Gatling Gun’ by Peter Smithurt © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Americans also made good use of the Gatling gun during the 1898 Spanish American War, in particular at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. 

Here, Gatling guns were employed not as artillery, as some were tempted to think of them since they were on wagons, but in amongst and supporting the infantry directly. They fired 700 rounds a minute at the enemy atop the hill as American soldiers (including Teddy Roosevelt) charged up it.

Where Was The Gatling Gun Not Used?

In a recent article on the worst military mistakes in history, forces.net provided a list of eight lessons drawn from various historical military disasters.

Lessons four and five were ‘Learn To Count’ and ‘Always Look Behind The Next Hill’, and they dealt with the Battles of Little Bighorn and Isandlwana. In both instances, well-trained and equipped American and British forces either misjudged the number and position of their enemies, or did not even realise they were there in the first place. 

The consequence in both cases was essentially the same: a technologically less advanced yet numerically superior foe swiftly moved in, swamped and then destroyed their opponents - Custer’s cavalry and British redcoats, respectively. 

Though as it turns out, it is possible the same lesson might apply to both situations: Don’t Forget To Take The Gatling Gun. 

That is because Smithurst points out that both forces - Custer's cavalry, and Chelmsford Redcoats - had access to Gatling guns, but chose not to take them along, deeming the wagon-drawn weapons to be too cumbersome. Had they reconsidered, Smithurst argues, the results of Little Bighorn and Isandlwana might have turned out very differently.

Indeed, the Gatling, and it successor the Maxim, would ultimately reshape modern war.

Was The Machine Gun The Next Step On From The Gatling Gun?

The answer to this question is both yes and no.

The Maxin machine gun would be invented in 1883, so was in use alongside the Gatling gun for some time. Smithurst notes that the continued use of the latter is a testament to its good design, and in fact both weapons essentially did the same thing. They combined the ejection of spent cartridges, the loading of new ones, and the cocking of the gun and the rapid firing of rounds whilst at the same time utilising a large quantity of ammunition.

Technically though, the Gatling gun in the modern sense. It was a mechanical gun that fired large numbers of bullets quickly, though to keep up its rapid rate of fire it was necessary to crank its handle continuously. Modern machine guns, by contrast, are mechanically designed to continue firing as long as the trigger is held down. The Maxim, and many other machine guns like the later German GPMGs the MG 34 and MG 42, accomplished this by using the force from a bullet's recoil to continuously re-cock and re-load the chamber. 

However, while the Maxim and its successors would replace the Gatling gun on the battlefield, it turns out there was still a place for the Gatling in the modern world.

Modern aviation came to need guns that could fire extremely rapidly to hit fast-moving targets (namely, other jet aircraft) in the air. As it turned out, when the Gatling gun was fitted with an electric motor, it proved adept at this, achieving higher rates of fire than regular machine guns. Thus, it eventually led to modern rapid-fire guns like the Vulcan Gun and the Minigun. So in a way, the Gatling gun has lived on after all.

For more on the Gatling gun and its development, read ‘The Gatling Gun’ by Peter Smithurst and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Image of Gatling gun at Fort Laramie in Wyoming by Matthew Trump.